Trump and Abe’s ‘Unshakable Bond’ Shows Some Cracks in Tokyo
The joint news conference that followed made it clear that being in lock step with Mr. Trump can be a precarious position for any world leader.
After the two men strode to the podium on Monday afternoon, Mr. Abe declared that the friendship and alliance had been further cemented by a day on the golf course, inside the sumo arena and at a robatayaki dinner with their spouses. He said that he and Mr. Trump were “completely on the same page” on issues like trade and North Korea.
But Mr. Trump, after praising Japan’s hospitality and ancient culture, as well as Mr. Abe’s friendship, made it clear that he was there to put America, and in some cases his own grievances, first.
During the 40-minute news conference, Mr. Trump again shrugged off North Korea’s recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles, which, if fired at Japan, could kill thousands of civilians.
Mr. Trump had kicked off his four-day state visit the day before by making a similar declaration on Twitter, despite the fact that Mr. Abe and the president’s own national security adviser, John R. Bolton, had both called the tests a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
“My people think it could have been a violation,” Mr. Trump told reporters, but he added that he was not “personally” concerned about the launches.
“Perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not,” he said of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, an autocrat with whom Mr. Trump has worked to forge warm relations in pursuit of a denuclearization agreement. “Who knows? All I know is there have been no nuclear tests, no long-range missiles going out. I think that someday we will have a deal.”
The president also bristled upon mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a hallmark of the Obama administration from which Mr. Trump withdrew the United States early in his presidency. “I have nothing to do with T.P.P.,” he said of the vast trade agreement championed by Japan, adding that “I’m not bound by anything.”
Additionally, Mr. Trump continued to nurse domestic grievances in front of his Japanese guests, taunting his Democratic enemies and reprising his denunciation of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The president refused to back down from a Twitter post a day earlier in which he took aim at Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential candidate he is most concerned about. On Twitter, Mr. Trump appeared to praise Mr. Kim for calling Mr. Biden a “low I.Q. individual” — echoing Mr. Trump’s own words about the former vice president — after Mr. Biden had branded the North Korean leader a “tyrant.”
The tweet has earned Mr. Trump criticism back home, including among members of his own party, but in Tokyo, Mr. Trump did not seem concerned.
“Kim Jong-un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-I.Q. individual,” Mr. Trump said. “He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that.”
He continued to fixate on Mr. Biden and what he called “the horrible Iran deal” that the Obama administration made.
“Joe Biden was a disaster,” he said. “His administration, with President Obama, basically a disaster when it came to so many things — economy, military, defense. They had a lot of problems; I’m not a fan.”
As Mr. Trump veered from topic to topic, Mr. Abe remained intent on praising the president and reinforcing the healthy state of their alliance.
On the North Korean missile tests, Mr. Abe repeated earlier statements that they were “regrettable” but said he and the president were in complete agreement. And on trade, a major issue looming over the two countries as Mr. Trump has threatened auto tariffs, Mr. Abe said he was pursuing a bilateral deal that would be a “win-win” for both sides.
When it comes to the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and Iran, Mr. Abe has tried to step up what has in the past been an informal role in advising Mr. Trump. With Iran lashing out at the Trump administration’s decision to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East, Mr. Abe has offered his help as a mediator between the two nations.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump told reporters that he was open to accepting the help — but not before couching it by saying “we’ll see what happens,” a rhetorical device he commonly uses as a way to extend his decision-making timeline on pressing geopolitical matters.
“I know for a fact the prime minister is very close with the leadership of Iran, and we’ll see what happens,” Mr. Trump said. “Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.”
Before the news conference, Mr. Trump was whisked through the capital from one palace to another as a diplomatic guest. On the last full day of his lavish visit, Mr. Trump became the first foreign leader to meet Naruhito, the new emperor, and listened to the stories of families whose relatives had been abducted by North Korea.
Playing to his ego, Mr. Abe on Monday repeatedly thanked his friend “Donald” for making the trip, noting that with his presentation of a trophy at a sumo tournament on Sunday night, “indeed a new page was added to the prestigious history of sumo.”
He was also careful not to criticize Mr. Trump’s approach to North Korea. “He cracked open the shell of distrust,” he said of Mr. Trump’s attempts at friendship with Mr. Kim, repeating the phrase twice from the podium. “This was a new approach, which I welcome.”
At the news conference, Mr. Abe restated his desire to meet with Mr. Kim “without preconditions,” and Mr. Trump said he welcomed the prospect of such a meeting. But the North Korean leader has so far voiced no interest, and Mr. Abe said there was no particular timeline for pursuing a meeting.
Earlier, during a bilateral gathering between the two leaders, Mr. Abe quietly adjusted his sock while Mr. Trump promoted the fact that there had been “no rocket testing” and “no nuclear testing” from North Korea in two years.
The prime minister’s careful body language and word choices intrigued analysts who study the region closely. Victor Cha, a prominent North Korea expert, said that Mr. Abe most likely wanted to avoid the appearance of any discord with Mr. Trump after a heavily ceremonial visit, while also maintaining hope of a future summit meeting with the North.
Mr. Cha said that Mr. Trump’s blasé remarks about missiles that had the ability to reach Japan represented a misguided approach to the United States-Japan relationship.
“When Bolton says these short-range tests are a violation of the U.N. security resolutions, that’s the correct math on this,” Mr. Cha said. Of the president, he added: “The math is all backwards here. Especially when he’s standing with the ally.”
At a six-course, black-tie state banquet at the palace on Monday evening, with the emperor and Mr. Abe both in attendance, Mr. Trump called America’s relationship with Japan a “treasured alliance.” Notably absent from the list of White House officials who attended was Mr. Bolton.